Beyond politics, Indo-Nepal relations are set to take off
Modi’s fifth visit to Nepal expands upon bilateral economic and cultural engagements after a period of frost
A few hours before Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi landed at Lumbini, Nepal, on the occasion of Buddha Purnima, Nepal’s aviation sector made history. Kuwaiti airline Jazeera flight number J9545 landed at the newly-built Gautam Buddha Airport in Bhairahawa, the second international airport in Nepal, 74 years after the first aircraft landed in Kathmandu. The flight, however, took a circuitous route after going over Indian airspace close to Gorakhpur. Although Bhairahawa is just across the border from Gorakhpur, the flight had to go further east to enter Nepal’s airspace, before doing a U-turn and flying back to Bhairahawa.
The reason for this curious passage is that India is yet to open new entry routes for aircraft to enter Nepal, despite a 2014 joint statement issued on the occasion of Modi’s first visit to Nepal, which stated that the authorities concerned would meet and resolve Nepal’s demands for three additional air entry routes within six months. Almost a decade later, the issue is unaddressed.
Questions were also asked about why the PM was taking a chopper directly to Lumbini instead of landing at the newly-built airport (which is an hour away from Lumbini at most). While the Indian foreign secretary suggested it was because of reasons of security, that the Bhairahawa airport was built by a Chinese firm, albeit financed by the Asian Development Bank, has been cited as a possible concern. To the Nepali observer, such insecurities seem unreasonable, especially since bilateral trade between India and China has risen despite the 2020 Galwan violence, and several Chinese infrastructure companies such as heavy-equipment manufacturers Sany and Liugong have set up plants in India.
Nonetheless, Modi’s fifth visit to Nepal expands upon bilateral economic and cultural engagements after a period of frost. Relations seem to be back on track after the events of 2015 and Nepal’s new political map. Modi’s Lumbini speech built on the shared religious heritage he has highlighted since his visit to Janakpur, Sita’s birthplace, in 2018. He is also the first Indian PM to visit two Nepali border towns close to India — both religious spots. The open India-Nepal border, unique as it may be, remains the foundational pillar of the relationship, but one only needs to cross it to understand the challenges that exist on both sides.
The two countries signed six Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs) during the visit, including one to build a 695 MW hydro project on the Arun river as a joint venture, the second such venture on the river by India. Further, MoUs will expand on India’s cultural and educational outreach, such as an agreement to initiate a joint Master’s degree programme between Kathmandu University and the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras.
Delhi has rightly focused on furthering economic connectivity with Kathmandu in this period of thaw, especially with federal and provincial elections slated later this year in Nepal. Local election trends suggest a political churn may be underway in the country, and India would do well not to be distracted and build on the current bilateral framework while working towards a resolution of outstanding issues.
For, as with any relationship, trust is paramount, and especially more so in Nepal-India ties that extend beyond generic diplomacy. As much as Kathmandu must show that Delhi can trust it to protect its interests, Delhi must also be cognisant of Nepal’s aspirations. For example, the long-pending demand for new air routes has come to be associated with divergent priorities in bilateral ties in Kathmandu.
Similarly, while the Kalapani border dispute, as the foreign secretary rightly said, will have to be addressed under bilateral mechanisms without politicising the issue, Nepali observers have also long been dissatisfied with the lack of progress on the Eminent Persons’ Group report, which was tasked with reviewing various agreements and treaties, including the 1950 Nepal-India Friendship Treaty.
India’s push towards expanding connectivity is bearing fruit. There has been new energy (pardon the pun) in the hydropower sector, with India recently permitting the export of an additional 360 MW of electricity from Nepal and new cross-border transmission lines in the pipeline. With several new hydro projects slated to generate more power than Nepal can consume within the next few years, the Nepalis are, however, concerned about its decision to not buy power from projects built by Chinese firms. Slowly but steadily, cross-border railway projects are also gathering steam.
Delhi can similarly benefit from the opportunities that have arisen from the lack of progress on China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects in Nepal. China replaced India as the highest source of foreign investments in recent years, but given the longstanding ties, this is another possible area where India can build upon.
The Lumbini visit, combined with Nepal PM Sher Bahadur Deuba’s April visit, has laid the ground for deepening bilateral ties beyond the political arena. The Buddhist Circuit, as imagined by India, must take Lumbini into consideration since Buddha’s birthplace is a quintessential part of the pilgrimage.
The agreement in principle to establish sister-city ties between Lumbini and Kushinagar, where the Buddha achieved parinirvana, is a step towards this. The PM once again spoke in Nepali in Lumbini, but the relationship now demands actions as much as words. As unique as bilateral ties are, the two countries must move forward from here.
Amish Raj Mulmi is the author of All Roads Lead North: Nepal’s Turn to China
The views expressed are personal